When you have a disability, you get really good at reading people — you kind of have to. Most of the world doesn’t like being around us. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. It’s the human condition. People just don’t feel comfortable being around other people that are different. You know it when you’re around someone who feels this way.
I first felt what it was like to be a misfit after becoming disabled at age 14. Suddenly none of my friends, much of my family and a lot of my acquaintances felt uncomfortable around me. Before my accident, I was already overly-concerned with the emotions of people around me, and now being in a wheelchair, I could sense so much more; and it wasn’t good. Fear, shyness and 100 percent unadulterated unease.
Other than not being able to walk or dance anymore, becoming a bona fide “misfit” was the most difficult part of becoming disabled. My heart was broken because I knew for the rest of my life how much more difficult social interactions were going to be. Making friends, finding a possible mate; I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, and I’ve been right. A smile and warm cookies can only make you so much more “OK” to be around.
I remember how different the world seemed the first couple of years I used a wheelchair. When I first interacted with my friends, I could tell right away that I was no longer going to be treated the same. I was no longer a peer. I was someone to include out of pity. They asked how I was, they came to see me, but I was no longer treated the same.
And this carried on into my college and adult life. Often I will run into people in public who can’t look at me, or dodge out of my way. This is one of the most common ways people avoid me, and it happens almost every time I go out. I never have to go too far to be reminded that I’m not like everybody else.
It’s no wonder people disabilities like hanging around other people with disabilities — we don’t have to feel this way. We can only go through life for so long constantly feeling down because of our “misfit-ness.” It would be great to go to a party and not feel like a pariah, or have to struggle to find someone willing to openly mingle with us without any fear or reservations. Those people are out there, it just takes some hard work to find them.
As I said, you can often find them among other people with disabilities, or family and friends of people with disabilities; anyone with experience with disability really. Very rarely will someone who’s never interacted with someone with a disability before be enthusiastically comfortable around us from the get-go. We also need to find a way to be OK with being different so it doesn’t get us down.
I first met a group of people with disabilities who embraced their misfit-ness when I was 19, and they would sing the quintessential outsider song, “Why am I such a misfit?” from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer as a joke (gosh those nights were fun). It’s not easy getting to this point, but they got there — with toughness and realism and humor. I’ve been a misfit now for 20 years and it still bugs me some days. I miss being freely accepted by people and not always sensing their unease.
It gets old, but I guess that’s part of the package when you’re disabled. If we are meant to live these lives because we’re meant to become stronger people, then this whole misfit thing is definitely one of the hardest tests.
Do you feel like a misfit? How do you cope?